The segment's whole-animal approach yields more cost-effective menus and adventurous dishes.
When chef Nick Bognar visits his family in Thailand, one of his favorite things to do is go with his uncle to explore the many offerings from the food stalls and carts that line the markets in Bangkok.
“He knows all the best spots in Bangkok,” Bognar says. “He knows I love to eat.”
Bognar is the owner and chef at iNDO, a Southeast Asian restaurant in St. Louis. iNDO was named one of the country’s best restaurants by GQ in 2020, and he was included in Food & Wine’s 2020 list of best new chefs.
The chef expects to see certain ingredients on menus when he visits Thailand, and in particular, certain meats. Pork and chicken are the most common, he says, and some proteins that are prevalent stateside don’t receive as much attention overseas.
“Beef is definitely on the backseat there,” he says. “I usually eat a lot of pork and chicken.”
Bognar adds that chicken and pork are used more frequently in part because of the ubiquitous nature of the ingredients. You’re more likely to find pigs and chickens than cattle at farms in Southeast Asia, he says.
The cuts of meat found throughout the region are different, too, he adds. When it comes to swine, cuts of pork are generally fattier than their American counterparts. Chickens skew smaller in Thailand and surrounding areas compared to those found in the U.S.
Another difference is that Southeast Asian cooking generally uses the whole animal, a practice that isn’t as mainstream in the U.S., the chef says. He explains this is why dishes like curried chicken breast satays appear on menus stateside but less so in their countries of origin. In contrast, Thailand and other nations present a seemingly endless array of food carts and stalls serving items like skewers of chicken hearts and crispy chicken skins in an effort to use all parts of the animal.
At iNDO, menu items like fried ribs (glazed in palm sugar and topped with candied nuts) pay homage to the preferences of both Southeast Asian and American cultures. The ribs are prepared using traditional flavors, such as lemongrass, galangal, and fish sauce, while utilizing a popular Midwestern cut to appeal to American palates.
“The ribs are St. Louis baby back ribs, and we do them in a very Thai way,” he says, adding that in Thailand, it’s more common to see chicken wings or grilled chicken—not beef—prepared in this style.
“My strategy for the menu has always been to start where the customer is comfortable,” he says. “Then let’s try to push that a little bit.”
iNDO’s gyoza appetizer is another dish that highlights the more popular meats. The dumplings are stuffed with pork, chicken, and are accompanied by sweet soy and fried garlic.
Bognar thinks American menus will start looking more like their overseas counterparts for several reasons, mainly rising food costs but also a more adventurous customer base.
“I feel like I see less chicken breast on the menu compared to even five years ago,” he says. “I see more half-chicken preparations, which is better because you’re using the whole chicken. … Everything is more expensive, so we need to be smart about using as much as we can and reducing waste.”
He’s also noticed more U.S. menus incorporating cuts of pork that have historically been more common abroad.
“I’ve seen some pretty cool preparations using parts of pork that I haven’t seen at restaurants here, cuts like a pork rib chop,” he says. “All this stuff is going to trend up a little bit more.”
It’s a trend that’s also reflected on the menu at Ginger Street in Salt Lake City. Ginger Streets is a casual Southeast Asian hawker–style street food purveyor that serves traditional dishes like pad Thai, Thai basil chicken stir fry, and steamed pork buns.
Michael McHenry, founder of parent company The McHenry Group, says one of the reasons he loves including pork on the menu at Ginger Street is because it can be used in so many ways, which also translates to less waste.
“Pork has such a variety from top to bottom, side to side,” he says. “We’re using ground pork, pork belly, braised pork—that’s a big one for us. There are so many opportunities to cross-utilize proteins on this menu.”
Indeed, pork crops up in several items, including the wok barbecue pork ribs, which are tossed in a sticky sauce and accompanied with herbs, chile-fried peanuts, and kimchi.
Similarly, McHenry says chicken is also a great protein to feature on the menu from an operator’s perspective because it’s easy to prepare and generally a crowd-pleaser.
And while McHenry is excited by the rise in plant-based dishes within Southeast Asian cuisine, he anticipates menus expanding post-COVID to incorporate even more chicken and pork items.
“You’re going to continue to see more and more of those approachable proteins,” he says. “Menus aren’t going to be as restricted as they have been for the last two years. This type of cuisine is timeless, progressive, and relevant. It’s a hot trend.”